Post by Margaret Wagah and Joelle Bassoul Mojon
A little girl in a dark red dress runs around laughing. Her mother tries to catch her, before she trips on her ruffles and falls. Florence picks up Nicole and dries her tears. A tender and loving moment between a mother and her young daughter, who is learning to discover the world. A sight like so many others. But this scene has a twist to it: Florence is HIV+ and Nicole is not.
The pair lives in the Millennium Village of Sauri, Western Kenya, and made the trip to Nairobi — Nicole’s first into the big capital city — to share their story of hope with the participants at a health conference held at the end of February to discuss virtual elimination of mother to child transmission of HIV.
Florence, 41, was living in Sauri while her husband, a casual laborer, worked on a flower farm in Naivasha, north of Nairobi. In 1996, he was brought home in a bedridden state, with constant bouts of diarrhea. He died three months later. ‘I don’t know what killed him,’ says Florence. She was facing other problems too. Her house, which her husband had built, was run down and the roof was leaking. She needed help quickly to keep a roof over her head and that of her three children. According to Luo culture, Florence’s tribe, a woman can’t build a house on her own. Her in-laws advised her to find a new husband, something Florence wasn’t keen on. But she relented and got married again.
Not only didn’t things get better but her health started deteriorating. She was suffering from one ailment after another. It peaked with a series of malarial bouts, headaches, skin infection, backache and a mouth infection that had a persistent wound. The life-shattering verdict came in 2007: she was HIV+. When her second husband found out her status, ‘he abandoned me,’ recalls Florence. ‘I have no idea how I became infected, from my first husband or the second?’
Florence needed professional help. She found solace through counseling and assistance from the Millennium Villages Project health team at the Mindhine facility. In 2008, they put her on ARVs and her health improved.
‘In 2009, an old boyfriend came to visit me in Sauri. I told him about my condition and he accepted it,’ she recounts. As they settled into their relationship, they stopped practicing safe sex. ‘I became pregnant.’
By that time, the PMTCT program had started in Sauri. Florence was advised to enroll in it, and got involved with a support group. ‘I had a normal delivery. Since Nicole was born, she was tested four times, and she is negative,’ says the mom holding her 18 month old tight.
‘What I wish for her is to have an education,’ she says, a shy smile lighting up her thin frame. But for now, she can’t afford it. Her meager income as hired labor in her neighbors’ field isn’t enough to even keep her other children in school. So they are all at home.
Every year 370,000 children are infected with HIV through MTCT, 90% in Sub-Saharan Africa. Through the PMTCT program, the MVP and UNAIDS want to turn this trend in the Villages, so that Florence’s story becomes the norm, not the exception.
Through her predicament, Florence sees a ray of hope. At least, she’s still alive. ‘I’m fighting for my life. I have to live for my children!’
Dr. Margaret Wagah is the Regional Nutrition Advisor for East & Southern Africa. She is based in at the MDG Centre in Nairobi, Kenya
Joelle Bassoul Mojon is a Millennium Villages Project Communications Specialist. She is based in Nairobi, Kenya.